Gustavus celebrates diesel-free power

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2010

GUSTAVUS - Gustavus no longer looks to Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan and envies their cheap and plentiful hydroelectric power.

Pat Forgey / Juneau Empire
Pat Forgey / Juneau Empire

Instead, other Southeast Alaska communities are looking towards Gustavus and wondering whether they can do what the Icy Strait city did: Overcome decades-long hurdles, and replace its diesel generators with cheap, clean and plentiful hydroelectric power.

The community recently held a public celebration of its new Falls Creek Hydroelectric Project, which last year began providing all of Gustavus' power.

"It feels nothing short of wonderful," said Dick Levitt, president of the Gustavus Electric Co.

"Dick is the reason this finally got done," said Rep. Bill Thomas, a Haines Republican and a commercial fisherman.

Thomas said Levitt's lobbying efforts brought together multiple agencies and funding sources. Others at the celebration included state and federal officials who oversaw or funded the project, and representatives from neighboring utilities, including Juneau, each working on or already using similar projects.

Gustavus' diesel generators cost 74 cents per kilowatt-hour to produce power during the peak of fuel prices, with a more recent price of 39 cents per kwh. Falls Creek will bring that cost to under 20 cents.

While Gustavus now has surplus power, it didn't come either cheaply or easily. The total cost of the project was $8.2 million, Levitt said.

"Grants paid everything but $1.3 million, and we'll be paying that over time," he said.

State and federal agencies provided the grant money, with the largest part coming from the federally funded Denali Commission.

Gustavus also overcame the hurdle of acquiring the hydroelectric site. Originally within the boundaries of the nearby Glacier Bay National Park, a land trade provided state land elsewhere to the National Park Service in exchange for the site. And that took an act of Congress.

Then came the problem of getting to the location. Gustavus may be the flattest community in Southeast Alaska, and finding a site steep enough to produce power meant going into the nearby hills with an expensive three-mile road.

High in the forest, water enters a penstock where it flows down to the powerhouse after a fall of 600 feet that powers a turbine producing 800 kilowatts of power.

"When we finish with the water we put it back in the river as far upstream as we can," said Pedr Turner, construction superintendent on the project.

Returning the water to the river meant there was no impact to the salmon habitat, and fish screens on the intake also helped the project win environmental approvals, Gustavus Electric officials said.

While work is still being done on the project, it began producing power last July, and the diesel engines have been mostly silent since then.

When the community toured the power house on June 18, it was producing only 250 kilowatts, all Gustavus needed at that time.

He said he hopes to use some of the surplus soon.

Gustavus isn't yet hooked up to the Park Service facilities at Bartlett Cove, but Levitt said the Park Service wants to make the connection and shut down its own diesels.

Levitt said they're also exploring creating an interruptible power rate for the Gustavus school, to enable it to save diesel by using electric heat when there is surplus available.

Levitt said that while the project had a high initial cost, it will produce immediate savings not only for residents, but the state.

In 2008, Gustavus Electric burned 132,000 gallons of diesel. The equalization program subsidized the first 500 kwh used per month for residences and community facilities. That year, about half of Gustavus Electric's sales were subsidized by the Power Cost Equalization program, at a cost of about $710 per customer.

Southeast Conference Energy Coordinator Robert Venables said other communities can learn from what Gustavus has accomplished, but public officials also need to find ways to make renewable energy easier to finance and develop.

Gustavus Electric's slogan is "Power for Generations," and Levitt said Falls Creek will be producing renewable power for generations to come.

"This project will be generating for Gustavus 100 years from now, when all of us are gone," he said.

He said he looks to Juneau, where Alaska Electric Light & Power's Annex Creek Plant, the utility's older hydroelectric project, has been producing power for more than 100 years.

"Hydro is expensive initially, but it's very cheap in the long run," Levitt said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@

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